Mastering the art of body language

By Karuna Kumar

According to social anthropologist Edward T. Hall, “In a normal conversation between two people, less than 35% of the social meanings are actually transmitted through words. At least 65% of it is conveyed through the body.”

Hall’s thoughts were the underlying bed for Carol Kinsey Goman’s one-day workshop in London, presented by simply-communicate in late May. From understanding varied aspects of kinesics (the ‘voice’ of non-verbal communication) to real-life examples of the effective use of body language, Goman offered attendees the opportunity to tackle the subject with a deeper understanding.

Beyond the anecdotal and observational validity that non-verbal communication has scored over time, there is now scientific validity to back it up: neuroscience staunchly supports the theory of kinesics. Winning or losing a negotiation is strongly influenced by unconscious factors that lay hidden in our body language.

The language spoken through the eyes, the body posture, the tone of voice and the motion of the body is one that acts as a profound communication tool – provided it is learnt and practiced in earnest measure.

Leadership communications

Goman’s workshop began with a look at how people perceive a leader’s body language. In those instances, the kinesics are often read unconsciously and quickly, often resulting in personal and cultural biases. Goman pointed out that the regard for context is the most essential in reading and evaluating the right signals: “Noting the incongruence between verbal and non-verbal messages plays a pivotal part of reading the leader’s body language.”

The first set of non-verbal cues people look for in a leader are warmth, empathy and likeability. This resonates through open arms, forward leans, smiles, positive eye contact and eyebrow flash.  On the flip side, a leader sends signals of disinterest or rejection by leaning back between conversations, crossing arms and legs, turning the torso away and narrowing his/her eyes.

The second kind of non-verbal signals that people expect of their leaders are ones of power, status and confidence.  More often than not, the amount of space the leader occupies in his/her style of seating is clearly reflective of the power and status he/she holds in their chair.

Venus and Mars: Gender differences in non-verbal communication

During Goman’s engaging workshop, she explained how the strengths and weaknesses among men and women act differently. The ability to read body language, grasp listening skills and develop a sense of empathy are women’s key strengths. However as leaders, women are sometimes seen as over-emotional, meandering and non-authoritative.

During the discussion, workshop participants struggled to articulate the qualities of the male gender. This could perhaps be credited to the disproportion of the male to female ratio in the room.

“They do have a knack of being direct and rational that works in favour of a leader. Though, it cannot be denied that their directness can often take shape of a blunt attitude and being insensitive,” one attendee pointed out.

To this, Goman added, “The height and space occupied by men conveys a certain dominance and power which is another aspect that works for men as leaders.”

Deception detection

The audience participation continued as attendees were asked to determine who – out of two participants called to the stage – was lying and who was telling the truth.

Goman explained how the body language of a liar is actually just a stress response: “A decrease in illustrators with an increase in pacifying gestures along with pupil dilation and face touching are common signals of deception detection.”

Body language from head to toe

When it comes to picking up non-verbal cues, feet are the most important part of the body to watch out for. Why? They are a reflection of how the mind is working. When the mind is inclined to move out of a certain place, the position of the feet should be noticed as they tend to face the door.


Touching upon proxemics  – the study of measurable distances between people as they interact – Goman pointed out, “Leaders often intrude into the space of their employees when they interact with them. They tend to overlook the leaning back of the employees as a clear signal of intrusion into their space.”

Goman’s points hit close to home as attendees amusingly shared their own experiences of their bosses’ idiosyncratic styles that felt so profoundly intrusive.  Of course, in true simply policy, people’s confessions did not leave the confines of our workshop walls!

Let’s shake on it

To conclude a day that saw practical tips, enlightening observations and personal experiences into reading non-verbal signals, Goman ended her engaging workshop with the keys to achieving the perfect handshake.

•Be the first to extend your hand.
•Square your body.
•Maintain eye contact and smile.
•Line up web to web and palm to palm.
•Hold – and speak before breaking.
•Step back – and don’t look down.

These were her final standing orders!

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